Commentary  Do You Still Remember?

Nicholas Gibbs and Cultural Desensitization to Police Brutality

content warning: police violence, anti-Black racism, death

There is something that I do not understand. Mayor Valerie Plante has made multiple public statements about Montreal calèche horses, and has announced that she is planning to ban them. Of course, I agree with her on this decision. But how could the senseless killing of a 23-year-old Black man in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce float over public discourse like a poster caught in the wind? How do we unpack the fact that horses mean more to people than this murder, committed by the police whose supposed duty is to protect us? We are desensitized to “just another case of police violence” by mainstream media and politicians, while they galvanize us to act against animal cruelty. Again, I must clarify that banning calèche horses is noble, but why are we not emotionally invested enough for Nicholas Gibbs’ killing to be as much of a heated topic in public discussion?

How could the senseless killing of a 23-year-old Black man […] float over public discourse like a poster caught in the wind?

On November 1, I stumbled upon an article describing the shooting of Nicholas Gibbs, which happened in late August. After barely starting to read it, I was shocked by the proximity of the murder; it happened on the corner of De Maisonneuve and Montclair, about fifteen minutes from my old apartment. However my horror intensified as I watched the video embedded at the end of the article, which showed the interaction leading to the five fatal gunshots. I witnessed how the police officers took Nicholas Gibbs’ life, while speaking to each other in French, even though he was anglophone, only switching to English to yell, “put down the knife.” They made no attempt at de-escalating the situation. Yet, what affected me most was learning that Gibbs was a father.

I imagined the news being delivered to his kids and their mother. I imagined the trauma that his family and community will carry with them for the rest of their lives, a void that will not be filled by a mere one-milliondollar lawsuit. Soberly, I was thinking of the odds of my own father surviving this incident.

As a child, I could not understand the deep-rooted fear that my father carried as a Black man. I never had the chance to really unpack it with him either, but since his passing, I’ve thought about the rare instances where he became very angry, for reasons incomprehensible to me at the time. His life experiences were likely based on a larger context of indignation and fear, veiled by a seemingly impervious bravado. I could see this aggravation reflected in Gibbs’ part of the interaction between him and the cops. As I watched him tell them, “I’m not scared of you, shoot me now, then,” I cannot say that my dad would not have said the same thing had he been in his position.

As a child, I could not understand the deep-rooted fear that my father carried as a Black man.

What’s more, my father was also an anglophone, unable to say anything other than “pourquoi” in French. Whether or not Gibbs had a knife does not change the fact that he never should have been shot at. They surrounded him, not even making an effort to mitigate or verify if their words were clear to him. They simply stayed crouched down, their guns aimed directly at him. As I reflected, my devastation quickly turned into disgust and bewilderment. After they had shot the fifth bullet into his chest, the cops continued to order him to throw his knife away. Yelling these words at a man who by then had now dropped to the ground; a dying man only four years older than I.

How dare they?

So much was missing from that interaction in terms of communication and de-escalation. I have since tried to contact the Service de Police de Montreal (SPVM), determined to find out if they are trained to avoid escalating situations and adapt their actions. I have not received any response.

We in Montreal give ourselves too much credit, watching the disarray and hate of our Southern neighbors in the United States and reassuring ourselves that we are better. That racism is almost obsolete here, we think. What I fear and suspect is that Nicholas Gibbs is the latest victim in an entire history of incidents of police killings and brutality in Montreal. These stories are communicated briefly at whisper tone to the public and quickly forgotten, as though they never happened at all. We remain comfortable when the truth is silenced because being kept in the dark allows us to avoid starting discussions about the systemic injustices people of colour must endure every day in Montreal. The topic of racism is avoided once again.

We in Montreal give ourselves too much credit, watching the disarray and hate of our Southern neighbors in the United States and reassuring ourselves that we are better.

And so, today, we know the horrifying, gruesome, and far too common story of the murder of a young man who had his entire life ahead of him, and a family and community supporting and loving him. We simply cannot let Nicholas Gibbs become just another tally mark on the SPVM’s foul play card and do nothing, while we clearly have the power to resist and to mobilize politicians when for the sake of horses. However, these stories have made me jaded, and I do not have much hope.

For that, there are many things that I will still never understand.